All aboard: Allene Cooley Adams and Cameron Ellerbe’s Diaper Train

Diaper Train-0146

photograph by Carla Williams

by Todd Cohen

Diapers may not seem like a big deal to some, but they can make a huge difference in the lives of young families who cannot afford them. They’re vital for health and sanitation, but they’re expensive, 25 cents to 50 cents apiece, and families of infants and babies need eight to 12 a day.

Allene Cooley Adams discovered the value of diapers while volunteering for a nonprofit consortium run by churches in Portland, Maine, that provided families with household goods not  covered by public assistance.

“Diapers by far were the item most requested by families,” she says.

So in December 2010, after moving to Raleigh and marrying the Rev. James Adams, whom she had met in Maine and who had taken a job as rector at Christ Church downtown, she and other members of the Episcopal congregation launched a diaper drive at the church.

Cameron Ellerbe volunteered to help, and shortly after, the two founded the Diaper Train, now a program of Saint Saviour’s Center on Tucker Street. It provides donated diapers, wipes, and gently used books to families who need them. Ellerbe and Adams serve as co-directors.

One of roughly 165 members of the National Diaper Bank Network that have provided 50.8 million diapers for 900,000 children throughout the U.S., Raleigh’s Diaper Train serves about 700 children a month, and this year expects to donate 400,000 diapers.

Adams, 49, a Wilmington native, received a bachelor’s degree in economics from UNC-Chapel Hill, where she was a Morehead-Cain scholar, and an MBA from Stanford University. Ellerbe, 43, a Raleigh native, received a bachelor’s degree in art history and a master’s degree in public health in nutrition, both from UNC-Chapel Hill.

Adams worked as a financial analyst at J.P. Morgan in New York City and then as an analyst at the U.S. General Accounting Office in San Francisco. She and James Adams together have six children ages 16 to 28.

Ellerbe, office manager for Katherine Connell Interior Design in Raleigh, previously worked as a pediatric and neonatal dietitian at Grady Memorial Hospital and as a clinical specialist at Radiometer America, both in Atlanta, and then in a series of sales jobs in Atlanta and Los Angeles for a division of Bristol Myers Squibb.

She and her husband, David Ellerbe, vice president of sales for Penumbra, a California-based medical device company, have three children ages 5 to 10.

Nationally, diapers can cost families as much as $80 to $100 a month per child, and research shows that one in three families struggle to provide diapers for their children, and that children whose diapers are not changed regularly cry more frequently, behavior that can result in abuse. What demand do you see for diapers?

Adams: The demand is tremendous. It is growing every day. Diaper banks are being created everywhere. This has been recognized as a need across the country.

Families are referred to Diaper Train by Wake Human Services, Urban Ministries of Wake County and other agencies. Your volunteers deliver diapers to about 10 partner agencies that serve families. And individuals can pick up diapers Thursday mornings at Saint Saviour’s Center on Tucker Street. Families typically pick up 50 to 90 diapers per child, as well as wipes and children’s books. How has demand grown, and how are you balancing it with supply?

Adams: On Thursday mornings, we’ve been receiving 15 to 20 new referrals each week, if not more.

Ellerbe: In a two-hour period each week, we have been providing diapers for 160 to 200 children.

Adams: We’ve had some businesses adopt us as their community service project. TriMark Solutions collected over 27,000 diapers from friends and family and raised close to $1,500. BB&T sent 20 volunteers over different weeks and collected about 7,000 diapers from employees. And the Raleigh Association of Realtors has held drives for three straight years, most recently collecting 7,500 diapers. We now are delivering to about 10 agencies and plan to add a couple more.

What is an early memory of philanthropy?

Ellerbe: My mom was very involved in the Junior League of Raleigh. At an early age, I remember going with my mom, Bit Hardy, and my sister, Katherine Connell, and the president of the Junior League at the time, Carol Bilbro, to help its Bargain Box move locations. This was the way my mom wanted us to understand that there was a need in our community.

Adams: I remember adopting families for Christmas and going shopping with my parents to make the holidays brighter for families in need.

What causes are nearest to your hearts?

Adams: Causes that try to break the cycle of poverty through job training and life skills and education. I’m about to start volunteering at StepUp Ministries.

Ellerbe: Charities that deal with women and children. I’ve been involved with the Lucy Daniels Center, and I helped the American Cancer Society with its annual fundraiser.

Who do you admire in Raleigh?

Ellerbe and Adams: Mary Davis.

Adams: She was a beloved teacher at Aldert Root [Elementary School] and Centennial [Middle School] for decades. She is retired. She spent her life serving others in many different ways. She’s a volunteer at Diaper Train. She is the kindest person I’ve ever met.

You both left the Triangle in 1986. Cameron, you returned to Raleigh in 2004. Allene, you moved back in 2010. What do you like about Raleigh and how has it changed?

Adams: I’ve been incredibly impressed with how community-minded people are and very devoted to Raleigh and to volunteerism.

Ellerbe: It was nice to come home to friends, old and new, and see how Raleigh has just exploded culturally. So much has changed for the better.

What does philanthropy mean to you?

Adams: Giving both time and money, and to do so without judgment and to become really committed to the cause.

What are you reading?

Adams: The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. It’s the story of the crew team from the University of Washington that won the gold in 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Ellerbe: The Secrets of Happy Families, by Bruce Feiler. Each chapter is looking for how to best handle and raise children in the current world and age.

What is a pet peeve?

Ellerbe: Whining.

Adams: Negativity.

What is your philosophy of life?

Adams: Recognizing that all our little daily interactions matter.

Ellerbe: Always try to be kind to everyone.